Welcome to lib.reviews! We're building a free, open and not-for-profit platform for reviewing absolutely anything, in any language.

We are in early development, and for now, you need an invitation link to register. If you don't know how to get one, follow lib_reviews on Twitter, send us a tweet, and we'll DM you.

You can also find us on GitHub (mirrored to notabug), join our mailing list and chat with us on IRC (#lib.reviews on irc.freenode.net).

Watch a short screencast (YouTube version) about the state of things as of October 2016.

Show more

3/11/2017A nicer language selector
3/3/2017Search features deployed
2/28/2017ようこそ: Japanese is live!

Teams are groups of like-minded people reviewing things of common interest. Here are a few examples:

DevelopersEdu by VideoVeg(etari)an

4 stars
Powerful dictionary, built on the shoulders of freedom

Jisho is an excellent online dictionary for English speakers. One of its most amazing features is that you can basically throw at it anything, and it will try to help you: voice, drawings, English words, Japanese words (either in any Japanese writing system or using the Latin alphabet) and even full phrases!

But for this reviewer, perhaps this most interesting aspect is how Jisho pulls together a bunch of free culture projects to deliver an amazing product. It uses the JMdict, Kanjidic2, JMnedict and Radkfile dictionary files (CC BY-SA), Tatoeba example sentences (CC BY), the System of Kanji Indexing by Patterns, or SKIP (CC BY-SA), kanji stroke order diagrams from KanjiVG (CC BY-SA) and last but not least, Wikipedia (CC BY-SA). Jisho is a great testament to the power of a free commons.

Having said that, it is with a heavy heart that one realizes that Jisho itself it not free-as-in-freedom. The developers have freed some related tools used in the making of the website, but not the thing itself, which is quite disappointing. It’s that one dent that forbids this reviewer from giving it a full five star rating in an otherwise impeccable project.


4 stars
Climate Central usefully combines science and journalism to inform the climate policy debate

While the scientific consensus is clear that human civilization is rapidly changing the climate through uncontrolled greenhouse gas emissions, details matter. Which regions will be hit hardest? Which natural disasters can be attributed to climate change? Do positive effects outweigh negative ones in some regions?

To tell this story accurately requires grappling with the latest scientific findings. Science/environment beat writers must do their best to translate these findings to their audiences. Sometimes the truth gets lost in translation, and important findings may be missed. Moreover, traditional media prefer reporting on the human drama of the moment (crime, politics, etc.), and climate change rarely gets the attention it merits.

Is there a better way? Climate Central combines climate science and climate journalism in a single nonprofit organization. It is less focused on the politics of climate change than, say, InsideClimate News (review), but it does cover policy interventions, as well.

It’s been fully operational since 2009 and is based in Princeton, New Jersey, near the famous university. That’s no coincidence. One of the organization’s biggest seed funders is Princeton alum Eric Schmidt (of Google/Alphabet fame), and several staff and Board members are Princeton-affiliated.

Funding and Compensation

The organization’s latest tax return shows revenue of $9.3M, which places it among the better-funded nonprofit journalism outfits.

Most of this funding comes from foundations, but the organization also lists government agencies such as NASA and the US Department of Energy among its supporters. Funding is not further broken down (by year/gift size), and multiple requests for details through the site’s contact form received no reply.

The organization does not publish Annual Reports, and there is no other page that speaks to impact of specific programs, with one exception: The “What We Do” page features a loose list of links to articles by many international publications which have featured Climate Central’s news and research.

Program expenses are split between journalism ($2.7M) and research ($2.2M). Executive compensation is very high by nonprofit journalism standards: CEO Paul Hanle received total compensation (including benefits) of $379K in 2014, Chief Scientist Dr. Heidi Cullen received $395K, and two (S)VPs received more than $280K in total comp.

Granting that Climate Central is an unsual organization, the Union of Concerned Scientists (based in Cambridge, MA – not much less expensive than Princeton) may serve as a useful additional benchmark. It is a much bigger organization, with $26.6M revenue in 2013-14 (tax return), yet its Executive Director received “only” $270K in total comp, and its Chief Climate Scientist (who was one of the Lead Writers of an IPCC report) received $186K.

Sampling the News Feed

  • “Trump and Automakers Target EPA Mileage Rules” is a typical Climate Central news story. It neutrally summarizes how the Trump administration is following through on a campaign commitment to roll back EPA rules implemented towards the end of Obama’s second term, and quotes both environmental experts, an auto industry lobby group, and an environmental advocacy group. (There’s nothing wrong with quoting industry lobby groups, as long as their interests are clearly identified. Problems arise when dealing with “think tanks” that act as corporate front groups, pretending nonpartisanship.)

  • “Polluters Could ‘More Easily’ Commit Crimes Under Cuts” examines the Trump administration’s proposed EPA budget. Importantly, it highlights some landmark EPA settlements and the complexity of cross-state pollution by large corporations, which refutes the idea that a state-level regulatory approach is sufficient. Again, the article is neutrally written and cites multiple voices, largely focusing on expert opinion.

  • “Carbon Dioxide Is Rising at Record Rates” cites recent measurements of the carbon dioxide concentration and is partially based on a press release by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Climate Central includes its own simplified version of the NOAA chart (see below) and adds useful additional data and context.

Climate Central chart comparison

The NOAA version of the chart vs. the Climate Central version. To simplify it, Climate Central removed tick marks, labels for in-between years, and 10-year average bars, and highlighted the most recent years. The most idiosyncratic of these changes is the removal of the year labels; most publications show at least some in-between year markers for time series data (NYT example, Vox example, Bloomberg example).

Other Projects

Beyond its news feed, Climate Central makes efforts to translate its own research into explanatory journalism. Sea Level Rise is one such example project. It is based on peer reviewed research such as the paper “Carbon choices determine US cities committed to futures below sea level”, and translates these findings into interactive visualizations.

An example of these visualizations is the “Seeing Choices” map which displays the sea level rise in cities like New York under different temperature scenarios.

Some news feed stories also feature interactive content, such as “Meltdown: More Rain, Less Snow as the World Warms”. Many of these interactive widgets are embeddable, though they don’t offer the rich set of share/embed/download options a site like Our World in Data does.

I didn’t find a list of all papers published by Climate Central scientists, or an open access policy, though the papers that are referenced do appear to be freely available online.

Design and Licensing

The main website doesn’t have a mobile version (a pretty major fail in 2017), and it is a bit cluttered with many sections competing for attention (“featured content”, “climate services”, “special sections”, etc.), drowning out the news portion of the site. Perhaps to make up for that, a large story carousel features the latest headlines.

wxshift screenshot
wxshift provides local weather information in combination with longer term climate data and other climate change context. While much more visually appealing than Climate Central, it does not appear to have much of an audience yet.

Climate Central has created much slicker story-centric designs for some of its feature reporting (example). It also operates wxshift, which combines weather reporting with context about how climate change is impacting the weather. Some of the main site’s news content is mirrored to wxshift, as well. Launched in 2015, it appears to have only a very small audience (as of this writing, it has 1,751 Twitter followers and barely registers on traffic ranking tools like Alexa).

Climate Central’s content licensing page is restrictive, requiring case-by-case permission requests rather than using a free license for some or all content. This is fairly typical; even among nonprofits, permissive licensing terms are the exception, not the norm. The organization goes through a lot of trouble to create graphics and maps, which would be entirely appropriate in reference works like Wikipedia, where they could be added to articles read by millions – but the restrictive copyright terms make that kind of re-use impossible.

The Verdict

Climate Central’s journalism+science approach usefully complements more politically focused sites like InsideClimate News. Its journalism is nonpartisan, understandable, and fair, while being based on the scientific consensus. If you care about climate change (and unless you are reading this from another planet than Earth, you should), it’s a source worth adding to your social media or RSS reader.

The main site could use an upgrade. While it’s certainly non-trivial to upgrade older sites, there are many open source projects specifically targeting nonprofit journalism, such as the Institute for Nonprofit News’ widely used Largo Wordpress theme and the Ghost publishing platform.

The organization would also benefit from greater transparency. Being open and accountable about how impact is measured and under what conditions projects are shut down can help donors appreciate that their support is put to good use, and that projects aren’t just left to spin even if they aren’t producing a lot of bang for the buck.

The rating is 4 out of 5 stars, with high marks for the overall quality of Climate Central’s journalism. 1 point off for lack of organizational transparency, for executive compensation well above other science and journalism nonprofits, and for a site design that is not consistently mobile-friendly.

Posted under: Nonprofit Media

4 stars
In revisiting 1980s sci-fi/horror themes, Stranger Things manages to be more homage than rip-off

Stranger Things is one of last year’s big Netflix hits. We finally found the time to watch the first season and quite enjoyed it.

The series borrows liberally from many 1970s-1980s books and movies (Stephen King’s “Firestarter”, Richard Donner’s “The Goonies”, Ridley Scott’s “Alien”) to tell its story of a bunch of kids investigating the disappearance of a friend. They are up against evil government agents and, well, stranger things.

This could have turned into a series of tropes, but the talented actors (kids and adults alike), the well-paced plot, and the lovingly crafted sets and special effects make the show a joy to watch from start to finish. David Harbour shines as Police Chief Jim Hopper, gradually revealing his character’s depth. Winona Ryder plays the distressed mother Joyce Byers convincingly, though a little bit less distress would have worked just as well.

The kid actors all do an admirable job, but Millie Bobbby Brown (El) and Gaten Matarazzo (Dustin) give especially memorable performances. The show’s weakest bits involve some bog standard high school drama, and the cardboard character government agents.

The show references its inspirations, but not in an obnoxious way. Stephen King is once mentioned by name, and other 80s pop culture bits are woven into the story where appropriate. Beyond that, there are many elegant visual references (link contains spoilers) .

If you haven’t gotten around to it, I definitely recommend watching the first season. You’ll be quickly pulled in, and if you grew up during the 80s, you might laugh out loud a few times, quite possibly confusing the hell out of any younger folks present.


5 stars
Romano pensiga distrante eo

Tiu libro estis la unua romano kiun mi legis en Esperanto, kaj ĝi daŭre estas unu el miaj plej ŝatataj.

Sten Johansson estas ĉefe konata pro siaj krimromanoj, sed tiu romano tute ne estas krimromano. Ja okazas malapero de la homino, kiu pruntedonas al la libro sian nomon, sed neniu serĉas ŝin, kaj ni vidas ke estis mistero nur kiam, fakte, oni vidas la solvon. La malapero rolas nur kiel centra punkto de la historio de la libro, ĉirkaŭ kiu la rakonto konstruiĝas.

Ĉiu ĉapitro rakontas parton de la vivo de Marina aŭ de la alia ĉefrolulo, Tomas. En 187-paĝa libro, oni ja ne povas rakonti plene la vivon de du homoj, de la infanaĝo ĝis la «pordoferma paniko» per kiu finiĝas la libro. Ne, estas nur rakontitaj momentoj gravaj kaj zorge elektitaj, la imago de la leganto konstruante la ceteron. Tio kion diras Tomas pri literaturo ĝenerale veras pri tiu romano:

Se estas tiel, do ĉiu libro enhavas milojn da aliaj libroj. Iomete kiel en sci-fi-verkoj, kie ekzistas multaj paralelaj universoj (p. 57).

La libro estas ankaŭ interesa ĉar estas multaj neĉefaj roluloj interesaj. En la konfliktoj inter ili, oni neniam vere scias kiu pravas kaj kiu malpravas. Ekzemple, Marina havas malfacilan interrilaton kun sia patro, kiu estas socialista Francdevena Esperantisto (membro de SAT, li maltrafas la SAT-kongresojn nur kiam ili okazas en Germanio, li renkontis sian Svedan edzinon en IJK, kaj edukas sian filinon en Esperanto). Li havas iom totalisma vizio pri la vero: nur li komprenas ĉion, kaj kiam sia filino malsamopinias, li eĉ ne komprenas ke estas alia opinio. Li nur vidas en tio kapricon. Sed Marina ne nur estas viktimo de tro peza patro. Ŝi ja estas iom kapricema. Kaj nenion, laŭ mi, povas facile pravigi la aĵojn, kiujn ŝi faras al siaj gepatroj kiam ŝi plenkreskuliĝas. Estas ankaŭ interese vidi en Esperantlingva libro, ke la nura vera isto de Esperanto ne estas pozitiva rolulo, kaj ke Marina pli-malpli forĵetas Esperanton, sian denaskan lingvon. Tiu malperfekto de la (ĉef-)roluloj ŝajnigas ilin al ni ankoraŭ pli homecaj, kaj oni pli facile alteniĝas al ili.

La libro estas ankaŭ pensiga libro. Edukado, seksaj roloj, socio, amo, amikeco (ankaŭ inter virhomo kaj homino), vojaĝoj, familio, laboro, arto, … la libro estas plena je pensindaj temoj. Oni eble povas bedaŭri ke, pro la relativa mallongeco de la libro kaj la multeco de tiuj temoj, ili ĉiuj estas nur malmulte traktitaj. Tamen, kiel por la biografio de la du ĉefroluloj kaj iliaj pravoj kaj malpravoj, la leganto povas kovri per siaj propraj spertoj kaj ideoj la mankojn, se ili entute estas mankoj. La aŭtoro ne multe engaĝiĝas, kaj mi ŝatas la liberon kiun tiu elekto ebligas.

Lingve, la libro ŝajnas al mi, malspertulo, bona. Mi estas normala Esperantisto, kiu tre ŝatas nek la neologismojn tro multajn, nek la limigon al kelkaj radikoj. Li pli malpli uzas nur PIVajn vortojn, kaj la nePIVaj vortoj kiujn li uzas estas difinitaj fine de la libro (temas pri entute 24 vortoj, kaj inter ili plimulto da propraj nomoj — Ĉernobilo, pilzena, sandinisto — kaj teknikaj vortoj, ekzemple pri skiado — kristianio, neĝplugi). Mi ne havis tro da problemoj por legi ĝin, krom en la unuaj paĝoj, kiuj priskribas infanan aŭ/kaj kamparanan vivo(j)n, temoj iom strangaj al mi, almenaŭ Esperantlingve (mi memorigas ke mi legis ĝin sufiĉe frue en mia Esperantista vivo).

Konklude, estas tre bona libro, kiun oni povas legi ĉiu laŭ sia propra emo, dank’ al la formo ĝia, kiu aludas anstataŭ altrudi. Ĝi sukcese plenumas la celon de ĉiu libro, laŭ mi: pensigi distrante. Plie, ĝi enhavas plenan mondon kun roluloj kiuj restos en via menso. Sed tio estas nur la opinio kiun mi havas pri mia libro; eble estos malsimila en via paralela universo…

Sten Johansson, Marina, Nov-Jorko: Mondial (Serio originala literaturo), 2013, 187 p., ISBN: 9781595692719. Prezo: 15€30 ĉe UEA.

Posted under: Esperanto

5 stars
A necessary alternative to Wikileaks

There’s little doubt that Donald Trump owes a large debt to Wikileaks. In 2016, the site systematically and incrementally released a stream of hacked emails about Trump’s political opponent through the final weeks of the 2016 presidential campaign, while not releasing any materials about Trump himself. Defenders believe that Wikileaks simply releases what it gets its hands on, but its Twitter account, as well as the targeted timing of past releases, speak to clear political intentions.

Wikileaks has repeatedly disseminated conspiracy theories, spread info from fake news sites, even weighed in with its “hot takes” on the vice presidential debate. It has ignored Trump scandals while joining alt-right speculation about Hillary Clinton’s health. As I write this, its most recent tweet is not about, say, an example of corruption in the Trump administration, but yet another Podesta email.

Political bias aside, Wikileaks has also been frequently criticized for its lack of curation, including by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden (“their hostility to even modest curation is a mistake”) and by progressive activist/scholar Lawrence Lessig. It has overhyped leaks and dismissed valid concerns about linking to a “doxing” site. It has carelessly flirted with anti-Semitic tropes in its commentary.

So what’s the alternative? The late Aaron Swartz knew that tools for whistleblowers would become increasingly important and started a project called “Deaddrop”, an open source platform for secure communication between whistleblowers and media. After his death, development has been taken up by the Freedom of the Press Foundation.

Unlike Wikileaks, SecureDrop is a piece of software, not an actual site to leak to. It can be installed by any media organization that wants to make itself accessible to whistleblowers beyond accepting anonymous brown envelopes. Under the hood, SecureDrop uses the anonymous Tor network, to allow sources to connect to media organizations while significantly mitigating the risk of discovery.

Sources are assigned a code phrase they can use for additional document uploads and two-way communication. I haven’t leaked anything, but I’ve walked through the first bits of the user flow and can confirm that, from the source’s point of view, it’s very easy to use. (Of course, there are still many risks when dealing with confidential/sensitive information, including digital fingerprints that could give away a whistleblower’s identity.)

SecureDrop has since been installed by countless media organizations: the New York Times, the Associated Press, the Washington Post the CBC, ProPublica, the New Yorker, The Intercept, VICE Media, The Guardian, and many others. The site offers a helpful directory of all of them.

Does it work? David Fahrenthold thinks so. He is the Washington Post reporter who broke the story about Trump bragging about being able to sexually assault women with impunity, and who also reported extensively on many legally and ethically questionable activities of the Trump Foundation. In October 2016, he tweeted meaningfully: “It works. I know.”

He’s not alone. An in-depth report by the Tow Center for Digital Journalism concludes:

I spoke to representatives of ten news organizations for this study, and nine told me that they regularly receive useful tips or publish stories based on information provided to them directly through SecureDrop.

While any submission system like this is bound to also draw in crackpots and nonsense, “most reporters were adamant that the trouble of installing and maintaining a SecureDrop system has been worth it, whether it is measured on journalistic value, financial return, or moral principle.”

The software has already been independently audited four times, is fully open source, and managed by a small nonprofit (you can donate here).

The alternative to Wikileaks, then, is not simply yet another website. It’s a piece of software that, like a webserver, can be installed by any journalistic organization, giving whistleblowers full control over whom to trust with a given piece of information. And that alternative isn’t one we have to wait for. It exists today.

True to Aaron Swartz’s vision, there is now a decentralized set of secure drop boxes that whistleblowers can choose from. The idea of a central uber-platform for leaks – one which doesn’t hesitate to abuse its standing for political purposes – is obsolete. It’s time, in other words, to kick Wikileaks to the curb.


4 stars
A recommended source of daily watchdog journalism on climate change and green power

The scientific consensus is clear, the predictions range from bad to worse: we are slowly heating the Earth by pumping greenhouse gases into its atmosphere, with increasingly disastrous consequences. Yet politicians whose careers depend on fossil fuel industry support are as eager as ever to peddle doubt and uncertainty to justify inaction.

In US politics, the governing political party is now fully identified with climate denial. In the media, organized denial continues to this day in publications ranging from center-right (Wall Street Journal) to “alt-right” (Breitbart). See the chapter on organized climate change denial in the Oxford Handbook of Climate Change and Society for a scholarly overview of the machinery of denial.

How should journalists tackle the issue? Not, many scientists warn, by engaging in false balance, but by giving consistent and serious attention to the matter. So far, such warnings have fallen on deaf ears in the US. Never mind balance: not a single question in the US presidential debates focused on climate change, and the ultimately successful candidate has repeatedly called it a hoax.

InsideClimate News (ICN) is one nonprofit news site that wants to close the gap between environmentalist advocacy and the limited reporting on climate change by major media. Explicitly nonpartisan, it has won multiple awards for its journalistic work, including a Pulitzer prize for “The Dilbit Disaster: Inside The Biggest Oil Spill You’ve Never Heard Of”. That article series was the result of a seven month investigation into a pipeline spill of diluted bitumen (dilbit), and the expensive and unprecendented cleanup that followed.

The site was founded by David Sassoon, a former PR industry professional, in 2007. The American Press Institute interviewed him on the occasion of the Pulitzer award, and he provided some background on his motivation to start the site:

Back in 2007 it looked like the country was getting ready to move toward national climate legislation. And we were very much attuned to the interest in the business community and the economic case for taking action. We also saw that the mainstream reporting on climate change was flawed. It was still reporting as if there was equal doubt about man-made global warming — when really on one side you had politics and the other side science, which was indisputable.

The site transitioned from a small blog into a full journalism operation that built partnerships with Reuters, Bloomberg, The Weather Channel, VICE Media, and others. It was initially part of the nonprofit incubator NEO (formerly known as “Public Interest Projects”) and now operates as an independent organization.

Funding, Transparency, Executive Compensation

InsideClimate News has published a single Annual Report so far, for 2014. According to it, the organization spent $961K in 2014. 88% of revenue is attributed to foundations and 8% to individual/online donors. One nice touch: individual donors starting at the $10 level are listed by name. The website also lists foundation supporters, which include some common names like Ford, Rockefeller, and Knight, but also environmental funders such as the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation and the Wallace Global Fund. Corporate sponsors like The North Face get logo placements on ICN’s website.

The Annual Report focuses more on what ICN does (showcasing especially its many media partnerships) than what impact its stories have accomplished in the real world. However, through 2016, ICN has published two newsletters, which do speak to impact. For example, from its April 2016 newsletter:

Although our Exxon: The Road Not Taken series launched last September, its momentum continues. Not only have the original set of stories won a series of journalism awards, they helped kick-start a push to investigate whether Exxon misled the public and investors on climate, with several states and the U.S. Virgin Islands now joining New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman in the effort.

In an email, David Sassoon told me that the organization is shifting to releasing a full report in even years, supplemented by quarterly reports in odd years. He also suggested that previously distributed quarterly reports would be added to the public archive soon.

In ICN’s 2014 tax return (which shows $1.5M in revenue), Sassoon’s compensation is listed at $98,400 total, and writers are listed at $51K-$76K/year. Assuming this covers a full year of compensation, this is at the bottom end of organizations we’ve reviewed, though ICN is also one of the smallest organizations we’ve looked at in terms of revenue.

Right-Wing and Fossil Fuel Industry Attacks

It’s worth noting that ICN has come under attack from right-wing groups. In 2015, Jillian Kay Melchior wrote the article “InsideClimate News: Journalism or Green PR?” for National Review, a conservative paper which endorsed Ted Cruz (“Climate change is not science, it’s religion”) for President in 2016.

The critique doesn’t withstand cursory scrutiny and rests on ICN’s long existence as a small-scale effort bootstrapped with help from a nonprofit incubator and Sassoon himself. But it is bolstered by groups like the Media Research Center, which receives most of its funding from Breitbart/Trump-aligned billionaire Robert Mercer and has also cashed in hundreds of thousands of dollars from – wait for it – ExxonMobil.

To be sure, the fossil fuel industry really, really doesn’t like InsideClimate News. In addition to the aforementioned proxies, it regularly feuds with the small nonprofit through its own PR arms such as ExxonMobil Perspectives (examples) and Koch Facts (examples).

The goal here is probably not to convince environmentalists or even right-wing activists, as these websites receive tiny amounts of traffic, but to disrupt partnerships and funding, and to firmly push ICN into the categorization of “advocacy journalism” in order to undermine its journalistic credibility.

Positioning, Bias

As noted, ICN considers itself nonpartisan, but starts with the assumptions that there is no ongoing international conspiracy to perpetuate the climate change hoax and conceal its origins, and that the scientific community generally has an idea what it’s talking about. If you think those are reasonable assumptions (and – surprise, surprise – I do), that still leaves some important questions:

  • Does ICN report on legitimate scientific disagreements?
  • Does ICN report on legitimate policy disagreements?
  • Does ICN treat the subjects it reports on (e.g., scientists, corporations) fairly?

Generally, ICN articles are written in a neutral tone. There are no parts of the site that are dedicated to activism. Compared to, say, Rewire (which we described to advocacy journalism in our review), this is a much more straightforward news site.

ICN staff sometimes write backgrounders such as “Republican Carbon Tax Proposal: Novel Climate Solution or Regulatory Giveaway?”. These are also not advocacy pieces – the article in question is a good example of balancing different perspectives, though it would benefit from citing sources.

Stories like “Warming Climate May Limit Lyme Disease’s Spread in Parts of the U.S.” clearly don’t serve an activist narrative. ICN also looks critically at the way scientific findings are used (“Both Sides in Climate War Blamed for Cherry-Picking Attribution Research”) and reports on ambivalent findings (“Study Delivers Good News, Bad News on Methane Leaks from Fracking Operations”). It includes fossil fuel industry voices/statements in some of its stories, as in this recent report on the Dakota Access Pipeline, even though industry spokespersons sometimes refuse to engage with ICN.

When it comes to renewables, the story “EPA Loopholes Allow Biomass to Emit More Toxic Air Pollutants Than Coal, Study Says” is an example of a critical look at a “renewable” technology (biomass) that is increasingly viewed critically, as recent reports on wood pellet energy schemes indicate. ICN also reports on carbon capture and storage and other technologies that could work in conjunction with fossil fuel use. At the same time, I found few stories on nuclear power, or on the ecological effects of large wind/solar projects. Similarly, I learned about the promising Allam cycle technology from ForbesICN has never mentioned it.

ICN does give most visibility to scientist and activist voices, and when it comes to climate change, tends to focus on stories that highlight risks of inaction, or show the potential of clean energy sources. Its in-depth coverage of the Environmental Protection Agency’s fracking study is a good example of its critical vantage point. Indeed, ICN sometimes describes itself as a source of “hard-hitting watchdog reporting”.

Content Example: “Exxon: The Road Not Taken”

One of the series that has gotten ICN into the crosshairs of ExxonMobil is “Exxon: The Road Not Taken”. In spite of ExxonMobil’s efforts to discredit ICN as a group of activists with an agenda, the series was named a finalist for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize.

Interestingly, ICN also offers the whole series as a Kindle ebook. Whatever one thinks of Amazon’s stranglehold on the ebook market, it’s certainly a convenient way to donate a buck and read the content on the go.

The series covers multiple points of Exxon’s history, starting with research in the late 1970s that began sounding alarm bells about what was then known as the greenhouse effect. One Exxon researcher told employees that “there is general scientific agreement that the most likely manner in which mankind is influencing the global climate is through carbon dioxide release from the burning of fossil fuels.”

ICN credits Exxon with working fruitfully with the scientific community for many years, before joining with the rest of the industry in mounting a campaign of skepticism and denial. From part III:

As the consensus grew within the scientific world, Exxon doubled down on the uncertainty. Its campaign to muddy research results placed the company outside the scientific mainstream.

The series is supported by timelines, source documents, and graphics. ExxonMobil’s response is to try to reframe the history: that there was always a lack of certainty, and that the company has always acted consistent with available knowledge. Nothing to see here!

But that clearly isn’t true – the evidence that the PR campaign started just as scientific groups organized their response and policymakers began getting serious about climate change is abundant. But not a single page on Exxon’s PR site (except for some user comments) even mentions the “Global Climate Coalition” and similar groups that were used to fight effective climate policy.

The investigative importance of the ICN series is undeniable, though I’m inclined to agree with one of the reviewers on Amazon, who notes a lack of editorial synthesis. Nonetheless, there are some elements of powerful storytelling, for example:

In 1981, 12-year-old Laura Shaw won her seventh-grade science fair at the Solomon Schechter Day School in Cranford, N.J. with a project on the greenhouse effect.

For her experiment, Laura used two souvenir miniatures of the Washington Monument, each with a thermometer attached to one side. She placed them in glass bowls and covered one with plastic wrap – her model of how a blanket of carbon dioxide traps the reflected heat of the sun and warms the Earth. When she turned a lamp on them, the thermometer in the plastic-covered bowl showed a higher temperature than the one in the uncovered bowl.

If Laura and her two younger siblings were unusually well-versed in the emerging science of the greenhouse effect, as global warming was known, it was because their father, Henry Shaw, had been busily tracking it for Exxon Corporation.

Email Newsletters

ICN offers multiple newsletters, including two curated collections of daily news from around the web:

Each newsletter item has a brief original summary, while the headlines are copied from the source. These digests are useful, but they aren’t as engagingly prioritized and curated as, e.g., the Marshall Project’s criminal justice newsletter (see our review). A single, more carefully compiled newsletter might be ultimately more successful.

Design, Tech and Licensing

The site is straightforward to navigate and works well on mobile devices. The list of “hot topics” (currently “Dakota Access Pipeline”, “Exxon Climate Investigation”, “Donald Trump”, etc.) is especially helpful, while the rest of the main page is a bit cluttered. Sections lead to in-depth investigations, infographics and documents.

There is no commenting system of any kind. There are, however, prominent instructions for submitting corrections and leaks, and a story correction I submitted via tweet was addressed quickly.

The site is under conventional copyright, granting content re-use on a case-by-case basis. Sassoon explained via email: “We rarely refuse [permission]. We’ve seen abuse of our content, otherwise. Also, we do partner with other media, and like to be able to grant exclusive access to our work.”

The Verdict

ICN is a very valuable, journalistic effort that sheds light on one of the most important topics of our era: the future habitability of our planet by humankind. The well-funded efforts to discredit this small organization speak to the impact that it has achieved through its award-winning investigations.

Indeed, the organization isn’t large enough yet to achieve the full breadth of coverage that the topic merits. One should therefore understand it to be a source of “watchdog” journalism, as opposed to a comprehensive view of climate/energy news (although the team’s news monitoring work helps with the latter).

The rating is 4 out of 5 stars: recommended reading. With a bit more editorial and design polish, more breadth/depth, and more consistency in organizational transparency, that rating may easily increase in future. ICN is now part of the Twitter list of quality nonprofit media.

Posted under: Nonprofit Media

5 stars
Nonpartisan quality journalism focused on the US criminal justice system

In absolute numbers, no country holds more people in prison than the United States. The US also has the second highest incarceration rate – right after the Seychelles, an island archipelago with a population of 92,000 people. The racial disparity of the criminal justice system is well-documented. Combined with a constitution which permits forcing prisoners to work, and laws and practices which deprive felons of rights and opportunities even after release, America’s practice of mass incarceration has been linked to its history of slavery and racial segregation.

The issue is so severe that criminal justice reform has proponents across the political spectrum, but little progress has been made, even under the reform-friendly presidency of Barack Obama (the first sitting president to visit a federal prison).

One man who has made the cause his own is Neil Barsky, formerly the manager of a hedge fund named Alson Capital Partners, which managed $3.5B of capital at its peak. In 2014, Barsky launched The Marshall Project, named after Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American Supreme Court justice and a towering figure in US civil rights history. The name might suggest an advocacy organization, but The Marshall Project is a nonpartisan, nonprofit journalism venture.

Barsky himself pursued a career in journalism before he went into finance, and he brought on board Bill Keller as editor-in-chief, further boosting the project’s journalistic credentials.

Keller was the executive editor of the New York Times from 2003 to 2011. His long tenure there was not without its controversies. For example, he was a “reluctant hawk” arguing in favor of the Iraq war, something he later half-apologized for, only to argue in 2013 that the US should “get over Iraq”, arm more Syrian insurgents, and force Syria’s ruler Assad out of power.

Be that as it may, Keller/Barsky quickly turned The Marshall Project into a sizable journalistic venture and a professionally run nonprofit organization exclusively focused on the cause of criminal justice.

Stories are published through its own website, and sometimes in partnership with other media organizations, both for-profit and nonprofit. Together with ProPublica, the project won a Pulitzer Prize for “An Unbelievable Story of Rape”. It’s a harrowing tale of how police pressured a woman to recant a report of a brutal rape, instead of tracking down her attacker, who would go on to commit five other attacks.

Funding, Transparency, Executive Compensation

The project is funded partially by Barsky himself, but it has also received funding from foundations and major donors, including some of the usual funders such as Ford, MacArthur and Rockefeller. Its 2015 Annual Report provides a high-level breakdown of funding sources: 55% foundations, 43% individual donors. According to its latest financial statements, revenue for 2015 was about $4.8M.

The Annual Report also gives a sense of how the organization views its own impact, recapping its important stories of the year, and sometimes drawing a connection between investigations and real-world impact, for example:

After we published Attica’s Ghosts on brutality at New York’s infamous upstate prison, the Department of Justice launched an investigation, cameras were installed inside the stairwells, and the three guards finally pleaded guilty.

This impact assessment is not as systematic yet as the ones performed by some other organizations, but it is only the organization’s first Annual Report.

The latest available tax return reports that Keller received total compensation of $225K in 2014, though his annual compensation may be higher given that he still worked at the NYT in early March of that year. Regardless, it is well below some of excessive nonprofit compensation we’ve written about, e.g., the $584K Paul Steiger received in his first year at ProPublica.

Positioning

The Marshall Project defines its mission as “creating and sustaining a sense of national urgency about the U.S. criminal justice system”. I appreciated the clarity of the letter from the founder and the letter from the editor in setting out the organization’s agenda. Barsky writes in his letter, about the criminal justice system:

What struck me was not only how expensive, ineffective, and racially biased it is, and how difficult it is to find anyone, liberal or conservative, who defends the status quo. But also how our condition has become taken for granted.

He argues that the truth speaks for itself:

We do not need to be strident or ideological or selective in our use of facts. When the truth is as disturbing as it was in the segregated South, or in Vietnam, or today’s prisons and courts, truthful reporting can have a powerful impact. We will explore what is working as well as what is broken, and where the potential exists for meaningful reform.

He concludes:

Being nonpartisan is not the same as being neutral. We approach the issue with the view — shared by a growing number of conservatives and liberals — that our system needs serious rethinking.

For his part, Keller promises in his letter that “you will find here the voices of progressives and conservatives, centrists and provocateurs”.

Content Formats

Most of the content is long-form text, with a few interactives, and a limited amount of data journalism. As noted above, many stories are partnerships with other news organizations. This means they are also often published in traditional publications like The New York Times, or broadcast in other formats such as audio versions for NPR.

There is a small YouTube channel used to host videos that accompany some stories, and it does not have a large audience in its own right (548 subscribers as of this writing).

I find the focus on long-form journalism refreshing compared with other media that attempt to do a little bit of everything (podcasts, videos, etc.). That said, compared with sites like Vox, The Marshall Project still has some ways to go in making complex topics accessible, especially when it comes to data journalism.

Content Example: “Opening statement” Newsletter

On most pages, The Marshall Project encourages readers to subscribe to its newsletter, “Opening Statement”. It’s a roundup of criminal justice news that includes original reporting, but isn’t limited to it. I must say, it is very well curated. For example, the first item in today’s newsletter is this:

“My intuition tells me that if I go in, I’m not coming out.” Jeanette Vizguerra, an immigrant mother of three American children, is taking refuge in a church in Colorado rather than report as ordered for another meeting with federal immigration officials. She was ordered deported under the Obama administration after a conviction for using false ID, but was granted repeated postponements. She’s given her kids instructions about what to do if and when the feds come. THE NEW YORK TIMES Related: Feds defend arrest of first “dreamer;” say he’s a gang member. DHS More: Now ICE is detaining victims of domestic abuse, evidently on tips from their alleged abusers. EL PASO TIMES

Highlighting these particular news items, including in the email subject (“A mother claims sanctuary”), demonstrates excellent editorial judgment. These incidents help explain why many communities have chosen to protect undocumented individuals by declaring themselves “sanctuary cities”. At the same time, it is laudable to see a direct link to the DHS statement, even if it may undermine a strictly activist narrative.

While there is some room for improvement (headlines like “N/S/E/W” or “ETC.” are not especially helpful), the newsletter is definitely one that I’ll stay subscribed to. I especially appreciate that it does not give Marshall Project content special placement, but just attempts to highlight the most important stories of the day, wherever the may be found.

You can view past issues of the newsletter before subscribing.

Content Example: “The Deadly Consequences of Solitary With a Cellmate”

This story, which came out in March 2016, highlights the issue of prisons putting more than one inmate in cells designed for solitary confinement. According to the story, “at least 18 states double-up a portion of their restrictive housing, and over 80 percent of the 10,747 federal prisoners in solitary have a cellmate.” A primary reason for this practice is prison overcrowding.

The story shows what anyone might expect: that sometimes, inmates attack or even kill each other under such circumstances. A chilling quote from the story:

After two months of begging for a single cell, Fox wrote a note to guards: “Move my cellie or I’m going to erase him.” They didn’t, so he did.

The Eight Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, but in a historically very punitive society, this is a high bar to meet in court. Reporting like The Marshall Project’s is essential to expose prison practices that amount to extrajudicial death sentences for inmates.

The story is well-written, uses neutral language, refers to many primary source documents, and makes good use of photographs, drawings, and an interactive 3D illustration. It was done in partnership with NPR.

Content Example: “Everything You Think You Know About Mass Incarceration Is Wrong”

On the occasion of his book release, the project is giving exposure to John Pfaff’s work, which questions the common narrative that the “war on drugs” is the key driver of mass incarceration.

While I have no reason to question the integrity of Pfaff’s work, as presented here, it neglects the well-established link between drug criminalization and organized crime: drug money fuels other criminal activity and sustains criminal gangs and organizations. The story also does not touch on the effect drug-related felony convictions may have on people’s lives. In this way, the “war on drugs” can be empirically argued to have ripple effects far beyond its directly measurable effect on the prison population.

In fairness, the authors reached out to Michelle Alexander (The New Jim Crow) for a quote regarding Pfaff’s work, and she speaks to some of the drug war’s other ripple effects. Moreover, presenting provocative theses like Pfaff’s is certainly consistent with The Marshall Project’s mission, and it usefully expands our understanding of the big picture. Still, I would have preferred a less sensationalist headline and a more balanced approach.

Design, Tech and Licensing

The Marshall Project website is easy to navigate and mobile-friendly. It employs a tagging system it calls The Record to organize stories about subjects like immigration or prison life. One very neat feature of this taxonomy is that it’s used both for The Marshall Project’s own stories, and for stories from around the web.

There is no comment section or discussion forum, and content is under conventional copyright, though there is no copyright notice.

The site’s jargon, design and iconography are a bit idiosyncratic (i.e. you have to poke around a bit to figure out how the site is organized, rather than being able to apply a mental model from other sites). This reflects the use of a custom software developed for the project and recently published on GitHub under the MIT License with an explicit warning that “we cannot support any use of this code, in part or in whole.”

Beyond its content management system, The Marshall Project has a very active GitHub presence. Unlike the CMS, the project’s news monitoring tool, Klaxon, is designed for use by other journalists and has been forked by other organizations, e.g., by the Associated Press.

This is a big deal – if news organizations, thanks to leadership by nonprofits, can open up their technology layer, it will improve journalism for everyone.

The Verdict

The Marshall Project tackles a systemic issue that affects millions of lives in the United States – criminal justice – and it does so without deviating from the simple premise that shedding the light of quality journalism on the issue can lead to positive change.

Having only been around for a short time, the project has already demonstrated the value of this proposition. The collaboration with other media, and the use of open source tools, expand its impact beyond the website and newsletters. The team’s curatorial work in monitoring news from around the web is excellent.

The project’s nonpartisan outlook may predispose it slightly towards ideas and voices that appeal to centrists. Sex workers pushing for legalization, for example, may be frustrated to see only a single article on the subject: an interview with an advocate for strict application of the Nordic model (prosecuting johns but not prostitutes). This in spite of the fact that major organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch advocate for full decriminalization of “sex work that does not involve coercion, exploitation or abuse” (Amnesty).

Systemic issues like sex work and drugs benefit from systematic explanations, e.g., backgrounders and data briefs. ProPublica ended up building an entire section for data journalism; Vox is well-known for its slightly clickbaity but useful “Gun violence in America, explained in 17 maps and charts” type articles. There may be opportunities for collaboration both with journalistic organizations and with think tanks and NGOs.

Still, these criticisms are not serious enough to subtract points from the final rating: 5 out of 5 stars. The Marshall Project is already very good at what it does, and I highly recommend following their work. You can follow them on Twitter, on Facebook, and via the Twitter list of all media rated 4 stars or higher.

Posted under: Nonprofit Media

4 stars
A good source of pro-choice advocacy journalism with a smattering of updates on other issues of concern to progressives

“Filter bubbles” of news consumption reflect divergent values. If you believe that abortion is murder, the fact that major US media are not continually reporting on the issue, and on the efforts by fellow activists, must seem like a grave injustice. Personally, I don’t believe that abortion is murder, so I can’t agree with that concern.

Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan have given one of the best explanations I’ve ever found, looking at fetal brain activity as the chief characteristic that defines being human. Because, like them, I don’t recognize the claim to personhood in the early trimesters of pregnancy as even based in any kind of scientific reality, the grave consequences of denying women the right to make this decision on their own are the actual injustice deserving attention in my view:

  • the fundamental violation of body autonomy that any state intervention represents;
  • the association of the “pro-life” movement with terrorism against abortion clinics and doctors and intimidation/harassment of women
  • the intended and unintended side effects of anti-abortion efforts on family planning and women’s health services well beyond abortion (e.g., contraceptive services, STD diagnosis and prevention, etc.);
  • the increases in unwanted pregnancies (which in turn may lead to adverse outcomes for children and parents) and unsafe “back alley abortions”.

From that point of view, major media in the United States are not paying sufficient attention to the unholy matrimony between the Republican Party and “pro-life” groups (including associations with religious extremists who have endorsed anti-abortion violence). To the extent that media do report about the issue, it is usually about the work of politicians, not the real-world impact of their policy decisions. This creates a distorted picture.

If you share this perspective, then Rewire may be a welcome addition to your nonprofit news mix. Recently rebranded, it has been around since 2006, originally under the name “RH Reality Check” (archived contents). It reports chiefly on reproductive rights issues. With an ethos of intersectionality, Rewire does give some attention to issues such as LGBT rights, race and immigration, and economic justice.

Transparency and Compensation

RH Reality Check was part of the UN Foundation from 2006 to 2012. This may not be surprising once you realize that the UN Foundation (which is independent of the UN and supports its work) was CNN founder Ted Turner’s billion-dollar gift to the world. Turner is a long-time reproductive rights and population control advocate.

Rewire has since left the UN Foundation mothership and is now an independent nonprofit (tax returns). Like other nonprofit media, it is largely dependent on grants from foundations, which nowadays includes funders like the Packard Foundation, the Compton Foundation and the Ford Foundation [CSV file].

The Rewire website does not mention these sources of funding or provide a breakdown, and Rewire did not respond to repeated inquiries about funding and other matters. The tax returns do show a large increase in revenue from $1.18M (2013) to $5.95M (2014). At $181K, the compensation of President/Editor-in-Chief Jodi Jacobson is not unusual for a nonprofit of this size.

There is no Annual Report or other statement of impact, and as such, it’s difficult to assess to what extent stories broken by Rewire have impacted real-world policy decisions or activist efforts.

Positioning

While stating its pro-choice positioning clearly, Rewire also identifies with the Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists. Commentary and news content are distinguished, though news stories don’t shy away from value judgments. This, for example, is from a news story about Donald Trump’s appointment of Jeff Sessions as Attorney General:

Senate Judiciary Committee Republicans in Sessions’ confirmation hearings largely dismissed his abysmal record on a broad range of rights—including, but not limited to, voting, reproductive, and LGBTQ rights, all of which are intertwined. [Emphasis mine]

Politically, Rewire is most closely identified with feminism. In 2016, it published a column expressing concern about harassment of Bernie Sanders’ critics by online trolls (adopting the “Bernie Bro” term and drawing parallels to Gamergate), but far from being a pro-Clinton piece, the article is a pretty nuanced feminist take on the subject. Later in the campaign cycle, editor Jodi Jacobson expressed frustration with the possibility of a Vice President Tim Kaine given his poor track record on abortion.

Content Example: “False Witnesses”

Rewire’s primary focus is in-depth reporting on abortion, contraception, and women’s health. A section called False Witnesses highlights “pro-life” activists who are sometimes cited as experts, but who (according to Rewire) are promoting false information.

To take a closer look at an example chosen at random, Rewire calls Chilean researcher Elard S. Koch a false witness for his efforts to discredit the well-established link between anti-abortion laws and unsafe abortions which put women’s health at risk.

After being rejected without review by The Lancet, Koch published his study in PLoS ONE, a journal known for publishing, then retracting a paper referring to the human hand’s “proper design by the Creator”. (PLoS ONE uses an expedited review process which does not examine a paper’s importance.)

After taking a look at the Koch paper, the Rewire analysis, the Guttmacher Institute assessment, and the Koch reply, I agree that the Koch paper draws unwarranted conclusions from the actual findings.

To make a long story short, the combination of rising incomes / improving education, legal access to family planning (including contraceptives) and illegal access to abortion-inducing drugs have helped bring abortion-related maternal deaths in Chile down, in an environment that has never been very tolerant of abortion. The remaining extent of maternal deaths resulting from unsafe abortion procedures is unknown, because they are by definition part of a clandestine crime under Chilean law.

The Koch paper doesn’t refute the well-established fact that countries which experience large numbers of maternal deaths caused by unsafe abortions could reduce those deaths by legalizing abortions. Its findings only suggest that the long process of reducing unwanted pregnancies through family planning/contraceptives, rising incomes, improving education, etc. can also contribute to doing so.

As a “pro-life” researcher, Koch overstates what can be learned from the data, and those who use it for their purposes likely overstate it further. Nonetheless, I did not find the Rewire piece especially helpful in piecing this together. For example, Rewire doesn’t mention legal access to contraception and doesn’t talk about illegal access to abortifacient drugs like misoprostol, both of which are important factors in maternal mortality. Its essay reads like a he-said/she-said that doesn’t quite warrant the classification of Koch as a “false witness”.

Indeed, unlike a fact-check scale like Politifact or Snopes, a classification system that personalizes ratings by labeling individuals “false witnesses” is strongly predisposed towards a one-sided portrayal. This is perhaps understandable given that both sides in the abortion debate are “fighting for human lives” from their respective vantage points, but it’s an example of a slightly sensationalist bent that may not serve the most truthful journalism possible.

Content Example: “Fake Abortion Clinic” Investigation

Rewire also does in-depth investigative journalism in a dedicated section. A recent investigation, “A Window Into Texas’ Publicly Funded Fake Abortion Clinics”, is a good example. It is based on public records requests regarding Texas’ “Alternatives to Abortion” program and makes the case (with input from health experts) that this program leads to women being preyed upon by organizations that promise health services, but that are primarily on a mission to minimize abortions rather than providing care.

Given its pro-choice premise and use of loaded language like “fake clinic” and “anti-choice propaganda”, Rewire’s investigation is unlikely to reach the large number of Americans who support access to contraceptive services but not abortion, and who might be shocked by the taxpayer-funded proliferation of “women’s centers” that don’t provide much more than an ultrasound and a prayer. Leaving this aside, the story is an example of quality investigative work that sheds light on the consequences of Republican health policies.

Design and Licensing

When it relaunched as Rewire, the site shed a dated look in favor of a clean, pleasant and mobile-friendly design. Color and layout are used effectively to meaningfully divide content by topics and content types (e.g., news vs. commentary). As with many good designs, there are multiple ways to go to the same place, aiding discoverability of the site’s content and structure.

A lot of content is loaded on-demand, which causes problems reaching links at the end of the page, since new content may be loaded before you can click on a footer link (a familiar problem with the “infinite scroll” design pattern). The on-demand loading of content doesn’t work when JavaScript is disabled, rendering the site partially unusable without JavaScript. There is no commenting system of any kind.

The site prominently advertises an email newsletter called Rewire daily. Each email contains headlines and summaries of stories, linking back to the main Rewire site. The email database is likely also used for fundraising appeals, though I have not received one yet.

Content is under conventional copyright, i.e. it may not be copied or re-used without permission.

The Verdict

Rewire is without a doubt a useful resource for anyone concerned about reproductive rights in the United States, an issue which is especially relevant given the onslaught of legislative attacks in many US states and the hostile environment for women’s rights under the Trump administration.

As a news site, its commitment to intersectionality is reflected in its selection of stories, e.g., an in-depth investigation of reproductive rights may be posted alongside an update on the Dakota Access Pipeline. The underlying assumption – that different movements’ struggles deeply relate to each other – may benefit from more explicit explanatory context in some cases.

I was disappointed by the lack of organizational transparency (no reporting on impact, no financial breakdown, only a “we will get back to you” response to an email inquiry without any further follow-up) and with a slight tendency towards sensationalizing in service of its agenda.

Because of these concerns, I subtract 1.5 points off its rating per the review criteria. This results in a rating of 3.5 out of 5 stars, rounded up to 4 given that Rewire fills a niche of specialized journalism that is not currently occupied by other nonprofit news sources. As such, Rewire is now also part of the Twitter list of quality nonprofit media.

(March 13, 2017: re-worded paragraph in conclusion that relates to intersectional coverage)

(March 16, 2017: removed paragraph that referenced the #NoBanNoWall tag below the site’s logo; Editor-in-Chief Jodi Jacobson clarified that it was a temporary placement as part of highlighting trending topics below the logo)

Posted under: Nonprofit Media

The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates
3 stars
De Waal documents the evolutionary foundation of our moral capacity, but fails to advance moral discourse beyond that

In his 2013 work The Bonobo and the Atheist, primatologist Frans de Waal lays out the evidence that morality is not a “thin veneer” covering our immoral animal nature, but that the brainier social animals (especially primates) have been equipped through evolutionary selection to act morally and with empathy for others.

Whether it’s the idea that we should get the same reward for the same effort, that kids deserve extra leeway for their inevitable infractions, or that certain behaviors must be met with punishment or ostracization, evolutionary selection has favored a “moralistic” view of the world. Humanity’s codes and beliefs are simply more elaborate expressions of this innate moral capacity and of what De Waal calls our “empathic potential”.

De Waal has studied bonobos extensively (they are closely related to chimpanzees and were long thought to be the same species) and recaps how bonobos de-escalate conflict and tension through sex. But he also explains that chimpanzees, in spite of their greater propensity for violence and aggression, also follow clear moral codes in their behaviors.

The book is strongest in these descriptions of primate behavior, which are well-sourced and explained through clear examples. The rest of the book tries to make the case that any attempt to displace religion must address the emotional gap it fills in people’s lives.

De Waal anchors much of the essayistic book in his perspective on Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, repeatedly referencing parts of the triptych (which overflows with symbolism and bizarre images) to underscore his arguments. Some readers may enjoy these passages; I found them ultimately overbearing.

In his moral argument, De Waal is very critical of the “neo-atheist” movement he identifies with Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris, accusing them of pointless and needlessly confrontational advocacy. There is little nuance in this criticism. For example, he briefly references Hitchens going after Mother Teresa, as if it was self-evident that such an accomplished figure should be above criticism, in spite of, e.g., her relentless crusade against abortion and contraception.

This reflects De Waal’s own upbringing, which he briefly recounts: having grown up under liberal Dutch Catholicism, he writes that he departed religion gradually and still appreciates its cultural legacy in music and art. The idea that this might give him a somewhat rose-colored view does not, however, seem to occur to him. Instead he is quick to conversely diagnose outspoken atheists as the victims of trauma. Is it not possible that some of those critics have simply taken a more rigorous look at religion’s effects than De Waal has, irrespective of its effect in their own lives?

While De Waal acknowledges the danger of religiously motivated anti-science efforts like creationism, his view is that science and religion can and do inform each other, while our morality is at its core defined by our biology and environment, not acquired through reason. He identifies dogma in all its forms, not religion per se, as the biggest impediment to human progress.

I find it hard to disagree with that, but a core argument by atheist advocates is that the failure to intellectually challenge moderate theism or deism alongside its more extreme manifestations gives religion too much of a pass in public discourse, makes it more difficult for a deep understanding of the world to take root, and creates fertile ground for extremism to continually re-emerge from the same scripture quoted by moderate believers. This is an argument De Waal does not acknowledge.

I also missed a more explicit discussion of the interplay between beliefs and the development of empathic potential. Doctrines like “Spare the rod, spoil the child” are far from mere abstract beliefs; they are direct recommendations for specific parenting actions with specific psychological effects. But De Waal makes no effort at an empirical assessment of how religion could perpetuate beliefs that have a limiting effect on our capacity for empathy.

Most importantly, in spite of the word “humanism” in the book’s title, there is in fact very little discussion of humanism as a philosophy and practice. It’s fair to argue, as De Waal does, that atheism is not an especially interesting philosophy by itself, but many atheists embrace secular humanism as a system of values today. They view atheism simply as a necessary foundation of their moral outlook, not a sufficient one.

Humanistic charity and relief work, community events like Sunday Assemblies, emphasis on pluralism and rejection of dogma, awe and wonder as sources of inspiration, and so on – these are all pillars of humanism today. De Waal’s book could have given voice and visibility to this growing global effort to create an expansive, inclusive humanism; instead it barely acknowledges its existence.

The Verdict

In short, De Waal offers a decent summary of primatological findings that are in fact entirely consistent with atheistic and humanistic philosophies, while adding little insight beyond that. On balance, there may be better uses of your time. For a closer look at the empathetic capabilities of animals beyond the primates, I recommend a look at Carl Safina’s Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel (reviews).

Older reviews